Oilseed Comes of Age

Camelina has yet to make the scene as a biodiesel feedstock, thanks partly to high commodity prices that dampened farmers' interest in trying the new crop. Enough has been raised to test its biodiesel performance and promoters still praise its potential.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 14, 2008
Promoters were hoping 2008 would put camelina at center stage with a big boost in acreage to demonstrate its viability as a biodiesel feedstock. Wheat prices three times higher than those of recent years proved to be too hard to compete with. It is difficult to know just how many acres were seeded to camelina this past season as there is no official reporting mechanism in place, and the handful of companies contracting with growers consider their acreage numbers privileged information. Estimates of the 2008 acreage range from as low as 10,000 acres upward to 75,000 acres in the United States, with a much smaller acreage estimated in Canada. That's a far cry from the 2 million acres cited as near-term goals for the two biggest companies promoting camelina, but with yields of 2,000 pounds per acre and seeding rates of 3 to 5 pounds per acre, camelina production could ramp up quickly. For comparison, U.S. farmers planted just over 1 million acres of canola in 2008 and Canadian producers grew a record 15.5 million acres, according to the USDA's July Oilseed Crop Outlook report. U.S. soybean acres topped 74.5 million acres seeded in 2008.

Even though acreage didn't expand this year as hoped, another year of experience with the new oilseed has promoters convinced it's a viable crop for the dryland farming region centered in Montana and neighboring states and provinces. "Camelina is the most promising oilseed crop that's come along in my career," says extension agronomist Stephen Guy, who just recently moved from the University of Idaho to Washington State University. At Moscow, Idaho, he has seen average yields of more than 2,000 pounds per acre and up to a maximum of 2,400 pounds per acre. The 2008 crop yields, however, were hurt by an unusually wet spring that delayed planting. "Early planting is critical to good yields," he adds.

Camelina is an oilseed with great promise as a biodiesel feedstock. In addition to good yields in dryland conditions, camelina has low input requirements, contains 30 percent to 40 percent oil, needs a short growing season of 85 to 100 days, has exceptional cold tolerance, and utilizes existing equipment for production and harvest. Two companies hoping to produce substantial volumes-Great Plains-The Camelina Co. and Sustainable Oils Inc.-each intend to have 1 million acres seeded to camelina within the next three to five years.

The companies landed important backing last year to help with their efforts to ramp up camelina production. Sustainable Oils is the product of a joint venture between Seattle-based Targeted Growth Inc., a biotech seed development company, and Houston-based biodiesel producer Green Earth Fuels LLC. Green Earth operates a 90 MMgy biodiesel plant in the Houston shipping channel. Montana-based Great Plains landed an equity partnership with INEOS Enterprises, a U.K. manufacturer of specialty chemicals and oil products that has an 80 MMgy biodiesel plant in France with a goal of expanding capacity to 600 MMgy in the next five years.

Camelina Benefits in the Field
The biggest selling point for camelina is its impressive yields even when it's produced in areas that receive low amounts of rainfall. That was proven during a field trial in eastern Oregon, which compared camelina and canola side-by-side, according to Richard Cooley, director of operations for Great Plains in the northwestern United States. The camelina yielded 2,300 pounds per acre while the canola yielded 1,000 pounds per acre. "It shows camelina's ability to yield exceptionally well in marginal areas," he says. "That area [where the trial was conducted] is a 9-inch [annual] precipitation zone." Although the yield potential is there, first-time growers will often see yields between 800 pounds and 1,500 pounds per acre, while experienced growers get between 1,500 pounds and 1,800 pounds per acre on average, says Duane Johnson, vice president of agricultural development for Great Plains.

Camelina sativa is a broadleaf crop in the Brassica family and is considered to be a much-needed rotational crop for winter wheat, as it can help to break weed and pest cycles.

Dryland farmers in the Western United States rely upon an alternating crop-fallow system and count on the fallow year to build moisture reserves in the soil profile for the next wheat crop. Many are not ready to risk jeopardizing yields by adding a crop in the fallow year. "We think we could take a camelina crop off at the end of June or the first of July, and have two or three months to replenish the soil moisture enough to germinate the winter wheat crop," Johnson says. He worked on camelina as an agronomist with Montana State University before leaving to join Great Plains to help commercialize the crop. More trials need to be conducted to prove that camelina will boost the yield on a following wheat crop and offset the moisture used. The Great Plains studies indicate that the rotational affect could boost yields as much as 15 percent. Guy expects further studies on camelina will confirm that it provides the same positive rotational benefits that other Brassicas have demonstrated in rotations with winter wheat.

There is much to be learned about the crop and its best management practices as production expands beyond Montana. Johnson says camelina appears to offer a great deal of flexibility for planting dates-from late October through the end of March. It can be broadcast into no-till fields if the seed is harrowed into the stubble, or it can be drilled, which is the preferred spring planting method. If the ground is frozen, the drill can be set to lay the seed on the soil. Some growers have even experimented with drilling through 3 to 4 inches of snow. Guy has heard reports of producers experimenting with broadcasting the seed on top of snow, only to discover it germinated on the snow in the spring and died before making contact with the soil. Obviously, the crop is extremely cold tolerant, Guy says. "We've had reports of the crop surviving temperatures down to 16 degrees Fahrenheit."

Camelina is also attractive because of its low input requirements. As Cooley points out, white winter wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest are concerned about nitrogen costs of $1 per pound, which would make it uneconomical to grow if prices should retreat. "The idea of camelina only requiring 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre is exciting when you're looking at three times that with canola," he says. Another advantage, when compared with canola, is that although they are both in the Brassica family, camelina is resistant to the flea beetles and aphids that can cause havoc with canola crops.

On the downside, there are no herbicides currently registered for use with camelina. While it is a competitive crop and appears to have some alleleopathic tendencies, which means the crop suppresses weeds naturally, it needs to be seeded into a clean field to get off to a good, weed-free start. Another potential problem reported by some Montana growers is that camelina is affected by downy mildew under humid conditions, but as is the case with many observations about the new crop, others say they have not seen the same degree of susceptibility.

Expanding Interest
With the promising results from crops planted in Montana and neighboring states, interest in camelina is spreading. The partners in Sustainable Oils are paying close attention to research being conducted in dryland systems in Texas and New Mexico, and further east as a winter crop in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Don Panter, president of Sustainable Oils, says preliminary trials in the Southeast showed good results. "It's a pretty neat fit," he says. It's a biodiesel feedstock that could replace winter cover crops that provide no economic benefit to farmers.

Further north in Pennsylvania, Joel Hunter, Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension says a little more than 300 acres were grown in 2008. "We had more guys interested in trying it than we had seed," he says. However, when commodity markets shot up, half the farmers pulled out of the project and switched to tried and true crops, he adds. Hunter says growers launched the project to utilize a small mothballed crushing plant in the area to supply the regions' new biodiesel producer Lake Erie Biofuels LLC, a 45 MMgy multifeedstock facility that started production a year ago. The results from the first-year farm trials were disappointing, Hunter says. Late planting resulted in yields of just over 1,000 pounds per acre. The experiments will continue this year. In one field, a volunteer stand of camelina that emerged after a mid-summer harvest was left to determine if two crops could be raised in one season. A few acres will be seeded late this fall to test the dormant seeding concept, and more acres will be planted early next spring to continue the farm demonstrations and learn more about its performance in the east.

Other efforts to introduce the crop have been reported as well. Blue Sun Biodiesel in Golden Colo., has received a state grant to develop camelina production practices for the area. SeQuential Biofuels LLC in Salem, Ore., is sourcing camelina from a group of growers in eastern Oregon who are processing the oil at Willamette Biomass Processors Inc. in Rickreall, Ore.

Biodiesel Performance
As biodiesel producers large and small begin to process the oilseed into biodiesel, the crop's processing performance echoes its agronomic promise. Great Plains says they have provided oil to several partners to produce about 500,000 gallons of biodiesel with good results. City-Biofuel Ltd., is one of the cooperators, and has produced about 2,000 gallons of biodiesel from camelina, says Quak Lee, plant manager. City-Biofuel started production this summer at a 2.5 MMgy biodiesel plant in Delta, British Columbia. Lee says the raw oil needs degumming before processing, but camelina produced a biodiesel that meets ASTM standards. Lee, a chemical engineer, says tests show the oxidative stability also meets ASTM standards, and the biodiesel has good cold-flow properties with a pour point of minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit), cloud point of minus 15 degrees C (minus 5 degrees F) and cold-filter plugging point of minus 3 degrees C (minus 27 degrees F).

Great Plains' equity partner agrees camelina biodiesel has good cold-flow properties. "It also has low phosphorus, which means that the oil is easier to process compared with other biodiesel feedstocks available in North America," says Alan Rodgers, international director of biofuels for INEOS. "Besides those key differences camelina oil performs very similar to soybean oil." INEOS considers camelina to be a highly sustainable feedstock for biodiesel production. "It will allow land not currently used to be brought back into production in many arid areas," he says. "A further benefit is provided through the camelina meal that remains after crushing, which is a protein-rich animal feed. INEOS views camelina as a perfect fit with our ongoing expansion program in biodiesel and provides us with a platform for further development in this very important area, particularly in the American market."

Green Earth believes camelina fits into its expansion plans to supply the California market when its anticipated low-carbon standard takes effect. "What's exciting for us is seeing the interest [in camelina] spreading," says Jeff Trucksess, Green Earth's executive vice president for regulatory and government affairs. "As farmers try camelina you see the acres grow almost on a zip code by zip code basis."

"The traditional farm belt has been the pioneer in the biofuels industry, and their improvements are coming from improving yields," Trucksess says. "But increasingly people understand the future is going to be in feedstocks like algae, or jatropha or camelina and of these, camelina is the closest to being commercialized."

Susanne Retka Schill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at sretkaschill@bbiinternational.com or (701) 738-4922.
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